rack! That single sound shattered the late-night stillness. Jerrod came instantly awake. Years of training in the British Marines now served him well. Those seemingly endless nights on lonely guard duty in parched lands had honed his intuition for such noises, the distant sound of a single rattling pebble, or the faintest crunch of a snapped twig.
Something nearby, someone had placed their weight upon a dry branch, had broken it. Now there followed a silence so intense it was almost exquisite, practically painful to the ears. Jerrod lay very still in his little tent. He strained to listen, wondering if this unknown person presented a threat.
Now Jerrod mentally sighed. Why did he have to go through this when all he wanted was peace and quiet? He'd had enough of wars, of people who felt they had to fight them. At thirty-one years of age, he was a loner by nature, an acolyte of personal solitude. He needed no others around him.
And as usual, he had traveled far to find a lonely spot along the Devonshire coastline, a remote place for his campsite. It was one hedged with patches of stinging nettles, crowded by dense undergrowth. This inhospitable site bordered between almost impenetrable woods on the one side, and the marshy edges of a muddy estuary on the other.
Yet, even in this poor location, this most undesirable of places, still there was an intruder. Who was it? Why here, why creep about at this late hour?
An indistinct murmur came, a man's low voice. Then another responded. This one was even less clear, but still obviously male. Was there someone else, a third person? If so, they mumbled, making only garbled sounds.
Even as Jerrod listened, these noises dropped in volume, became more distant. By the direction, he guessed they were heading toward the spit of land, that sandbar jutting into the estuary. Curiosity getting the better of him, Jerrod decided to investigate.
He crawled out of his sleeping bag. Jerrod dressed hurriedly, pulling on a heavy sweatshirt. Then he tugged on his socks and hiking boots, regretting the time needed to lace them up. The silence was complete now. The intruders had moved too far away to hear.
Jerrod emerged from the tent. The tangy smell of salt air mixed with the fetid odor of marshland assaulted him as he took a deep breath. When he exhaled, wraithlike, a cloud of vapor drifted off on the cool air. Jerrod looked about him.
Cold starlight lit the scene. Despite this, it was still hard to see, what with the deep shadows cast by the black woods behind him and the dark looming shapes of the tall shrubs surrounding his campsite. Still, it was lighter out here than in the womblike blackness of his tent's interior. However, this only made Jerrod feel exposed, vulnerable.
Physically shrugging off this feeling, he headed toward the estuary. Still no sounds now, except those very slight ones of Jerrod's own passage. Unlike those unknown others, he was quieter in his movements. His progress was stealthy, as he moved, catlike, through the brush.
Jerrod reached the last of the undergrowth. He squatted there, hid behind what protective cover afforded him in the form of those few scraggly bushes that managed to eke out an existence in such salt-laden soil, surviving on such brackish water.
There! Ahead of him, three figures moved across the open expanse of sand. Two were obviously men; the third seemed to be a woman. If so, she had something wrapped around her face, a scarf, or was it meant as a gag? Her hands were behind her back, seemingly bound there. One of the men, the taller of the two, a dark silhouette against the night sky, shoved her along, made her stumble ever forward. The three of them headed for the water, for a small rowboat beached at its edge.
A kidnapping -- Jerrod had no doubt this was what he watched unfolding. Now his instincts warred within him. Those primitive, self-protectionist ones that warned him not to get involved, to stay out of trouble, fought against the more civilized moral demands that he do something to help the poor woman. Jerrod reached his decision.
He spun about and darted back into the thicker cover of the undergrowth, moving away from the sandbar and the three people wading into the inky waters there. He ran as quickly as he dared, as swiftly as he could without making noise.
Back at his campsite, Jerrod plunged into his tent. He grabbed a down jacket and a paddle. Then he was off again, heading down toward where his sea kayak lay beached. Lifting the lightweight vessel, he waded out to where the water was deep enough to float the tiny craft.
He settled himself into it. Then, with an expertise born of several years of constant practice, he started paddling. Alternating back and forth, he dipped each end of his oar into the water. Jerrod moved the boat parallel to the shore. He glided along, cleaving his almost silent way through the shallow waters.
Jerrod rounded a small point of land. Yes, there it was, the low plain of mud protruding into the water, but now deserted. He looked about. The kidnappers and their apparent victim were in the rowboat, already some ways away from shore, disappearing into the night's darkness. Jerrod could just make out the woman seated hunched over in the middle of the boat, while each of the men occupied the fore and aft positions. They made slow progress against the tide, moved in the direction of the mouth of the estuary.
To Jerrod's practiced eye, the kidnapper plied his oars badly, uncertainly. Good. This gave Jerrod an advantage, what with his own expertise and lighter, much less cumbersome vessel.
His kayak slid across the dark waters, pacing the other boat at a safe distance, just keeping it in sight. To attempt a rescue here, in open water, was too dangerous. Somebody might drown. Most likely, it would be the bound girl, who wouldn't be able to use her arms to swim if she fell into the water. So, Jerrod would have to be patient. He'd wait for a better opportunity.
At last, Jerrod spied the likely goal of the kidnappers' journey. A small cabin cruiser lay at anchor in the deeper water. No lights showed, so its finer details were impossible to make out.
Jerrod slowed now, even as the rowboat did the same. Coming alongside the rear of the cruiser, the man in the front reached and grasped hold of the landing platform. He held on while the other disembarked, taking the struggling woman with him. Then, the remaining kidnapper also left the rowboat. With a push of one foot, he set the thing adrift, abandoning it to the vagaries of the currents.
Now Jerrod paddled his kayak closer, even as the two men forced the woman up the aluminum ladder, helping her so she wouldn't topple backward into the water. They clambered up after her and disappeared over the top. Jerrod paddled closer, watching, but nobody revealed themselves. He did hear the low murmur of voices coming across the open water. For a moment, the conversation almost seemed clear enough to understand, sounded heated. Then, silence again. Judging by the absolute nature of the quiet, Jerrod figured they must have all gone inside the cabin.
Well, there was no help for it. It was now or never. Jerrod paddled as quietly as he could manage up to the bigger boat. Grabbing a rope tied to one stanchion of the platform, he secured his kayak. He climbed out of it and started up the short ladder. No sooner had his head hesitantly crested the railing of the boat then he caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his right eye.
He turned just as an arm swung toward him. The hand held something dark, bulky. Ambush! Jerrod tried to duck. He was too late. The blow landed against the right side of his head. Mental darkness engulfed him as he felt himself crumpling forward to the deck.
Sometime later, how long, he couldn't be sure; Jerrod awoke with a splitting headache to find himself with his hands tied behind him. He lay flat on his back. Above him swayed a lit portable lamp. He squinted up at it, not liking the way the bright light aggravated his pain. Its motion made Jerrod realize, even before he recognized the thrum of engines at near full throttle that he was still on the boat. He lay on a bunk. The cabin cruiser was underway.
He twisted over onto his right side, although this action didn't help his headache any. There, across a narrow space, sat the young woman on the twin of his bunk. No longer gagged, she still had her hands tied.
She must have heard his movements, for she turned to look at him. Her dark eyes, set in a youthful but unremarkable face, regarded him with a thoughtful expression.
"You're awake," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Jerrod did not attempt to nod, fearing it might send a fresh spasm of pain coursing through his skull.
Instead, he said, "And the other two are up on deck?"
"Three," she corrected him. "It was the one waiting here on the boat that walloped you. None of us knew you were following until he told the other two when we came aboard. He was on watch, waiting. He spotted you trailing behind us.
"Not my best rescue attempt." Jerrod managed a weak grin.
"You've done others?" Her eyes narrowed, thin eyebrows drawing together. "Just who are you -- another fortune hunter?"
Now Jerrod did shake his head, but instantly regretted doing so. He blinked back the sudden wave of agony.
"Name's Jerrod," he whispered. "And I'm just someone who was minding my own business until I saw you were being kidnapped. I was camped along the estuary. You people practically tripped over my tent on the way to the rowboat."
"Did we inconvenience you?" she asked, tartly. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that," she then added. "Now you're as trapped as I am and you were only trying to help. I'm sorry for that, too. I'm sorry for everything!" Tears glistened in her brown eyes, threatening to spill over.
"Stop apologizing," Jerrod told her. "We'll get out of this. I've got a pocket knife we can use to untie ourselves."
"No, you don't. They searched you thoroughly and took everything you had on you."
"Damn!" Now Jerrod looked to the little galley. "They leave the cutlery?"
She gave a forlorn shake of her head. "I'm afraid not. They took that and anything made of glass, ceramics, or metal."
Jerrod was silent a moment. Then he said, "We'll think of something. Now, give me some idea of what's going on here, will you?"
She took a deep breath, as if to steady her nerves, and then said, "First, let me introduce myself. My name's Eve Braithwaite, but please, just Eve is fine. And you are Jerrod. . . ?"
How typically bloody English, Jerrod thought. Even under such dire circumstances, formal introductions were necessary.
"Gains," he said aloud. "Jerrod Gains, but just call me Jerrod. But now, about you being kidnapped?"
"Well, it all has to do with the last Templar's treasure --"
"The what?" he asked, interrupting her, such was his surprise. Instinctively, he glanced to the door of the cabin, fearful their captors had overheard him and might now come bursting in on them. The door remained closed. Jerrod hoped it stayed that way for a while yet.
He turned his attention again to Eve. "Are we talking fairy tales now?" he asked.
She shook her head, causing long brown tresses to shift in soft coils about her shoulders.
"The Guardian Templar of the Island of Lundy was real enough, at least from what I've discovered in the Barnstaple historical archives. I work there as a clerk. Supposedly, shortly before the Knights Templar fled this area, they left some of their treasure in trust with the so-called Guardian Knight. They didn't have time to take it all, you see. And he is said to have taken it and hidden it on Lundy, since the island was a property of the Knights Templar."
Now Jerrod shook his head, despite the renewed bout of thumping pain it cost him. He figured he must have one hell of a lump.
"I've lived around here most of my life," he told her. "I've even hiked the island and I've never heard of any such thing. It's just a three-mile long granite rock sticking out of the sea, with a few old buildings on it, and a trickle of tourists, mostly twitchers at that."
Now she shook her head. "There are more than birdwatchers on Lundy, from what I've discovered. And the Knights were here. King Henry II granted them Lundy Island back in 1160. There was a controversy over who the rightful owners were for a while, because then King John reaffirmed their rights in 1199."
"And these guys think the Guardian's treasure is still there?" Jerrod knew he sounded doubtful, couldn't help it.
Eve seemed to ignore this. "Yes," she said, "they do. Two of them came to me this morning at the archives, just showed up there unexpectedly, and requested all the information we had on Lundy Island. I showed it to them, but of course, they couldn't take it with them. That's against the rules. So is copying it -- matter of copyright infringements."
"And from that they deduced the treasure actually existed and its location? That sounds awfully easy." Again, Jerrod knew he sounded skeptical.
Eve shook her head. "No, they didn't find that out. They already knew about the Knights being around here, and legends about some sort of hidden treasure of theirs. All my information told them was Barnstaple or Bideford might have been a Templar port, and that Lundy Island did, in fact, belong to them at one time."
"That doesn't seem enough to go on."
Now Eve nodded her agreement. "It wasn't. They left very disappointed. I didn't know why then, because they hadn't confided any of the treasure part to me. They just acted as if they were interested in Lundy. I figured it out later, after they kidnapped me and I overheard them talking about it."
"I don't understand," Jerrod said. "If they went away unsatisfied, then why kidnap you later?"
"Oh, that's because, lucky me, when I went to put the papers away, I found an old letter at the back of the file cabinet where the folder went. By the look of it, I'd wager money it must have fallen out of the folder some long time ago. It was from a Thomas Benson to a friend. Thomas was involved in an insurance fraud with a ship he purchased, the Nightingale, back in the 1700's. You see, he already leased the island, and he had the ship's merchandise secretly unloaded there. Then, he had the ship burned and scuttled by his cohorts."
"Did he get away with it?"
"That's hardly relevant," she said, now sounding impatient. "In the letter, he mentioned the fact that they had to dig a cave to hide the stolen goods. It was hard work, because the island is mostly solid rock. But in passing, he also mentioned there was another cave he'd sighted not long before, one on the south facing side of the island, but there was no way to access it, so they couldn't use it. That's why he had to expend so much time and effort to have his men dig a new one."
"Ah. . . " Jerrod murmured. "So these guys think that unreachable cave may be the one that holds the Templar treasure?"
Eve sighed before saying, "Yes. And stupid me, I ran into them on the street right after work, and thinking they were just historians at the time, mentioned all this. When they found out it was too late to see the letter and that I didn't have the keys to the archive building, plus the fact that there was good security there. . . "
"Kidnapping you was their next best option, because you had just recently read the contents."
"Exactly! I tried to tell them there wasn't anything else written about the cliff cave, but I don't know if they just didn't believe me, or felt they needed me just in case."
"And now we're on our way to find this treasure cave?"
"It would appear so."
Jerrod was silent a moment. Then he said, "I don't like the idea of cliffs being involved."
Eve raised dark eyebrows in twin questioning arches. "Why? Are you afraid of heights?"
He shook his head. "No, but they make too easy a way of disposing of things, things that are no longer needed."
Now her eyes widened. "You don't think. . . "
"Oh, yes," Jerrod said in almost a whisper, "I very much do think."
"But they're just fortune hunters!"
"No. I've seen their type before. They're mercenaries and if I don't miss my guess, of the worst sort."
"What do we do?" It was obvious she now looked to Jerrod for her salvation.
Yet again, he was responsible for another human being, it seemed. This was what he'd sought to avoid all these years since being in the marines. It seemed no matter how he tried, somebody always wanted him to make their decisions for them. In this case, he could see why. Eve was a smart woman. She knew she was no match for these cutthroats.
He let out a sigh and then said, "We bide our time, wait for our chance. If we try something now, they might just throw us over the boat, as a couple of nuisances. Our best chance will come when the situation somehow changes. Just be ready and do what I say without questioning, without thinking even. Just do it! Okay?"
Eve nodded. "Do you think we'll survive this?" she asked after another long moment.
"I think we have a chance."
"Just a chance?"
He didn't answer this last, nor did he think she really expected him to. Now, the two of them remained silent, both seemingly lost in their own thoughts.
One of the men, a bearded one, interrupted this when he came into the cabin to interrogate Jerrod as to who he was, and what he was doing there. Jerrod answered him truthfully. The man merely grunted at this and then left them alone once more. Whether or not he believed him, Jerrod had no idea. Now, they had nothing more to do but wait once more, wait for a chance of escape.
Their chance did not come when the boat came to a halt sometime later. The motors died and Jerrod heard the anchor drop. Neither did it come when their captors took them from the cabin, pushing them roughly along the rocking deck toward the front of the boat. Still with their arms bound, neither Eve nor Jerrod could do anything, except lean against the railing, to try to keep their balance.
"Where is the cave?" asked the fierce-looking, bearded individual. The third must still be at the helm, for he was nowhere in sight.
Both Jerrod and Eve turned simultaneously, looked out from where they stood at the bow of the boat. The sun was rising now. The pink morning light shone on the immense rock that was Lundy Island, a black, hulking immensity in that dawn light, and less than half a mile away from them. The breakers that broke at the island's rocky base looked tiny and powerless from here, just mere curlicues of foam, but Jerrod knew better. They were massive combers, treacherous, dangerous to even larger boats.
"Come on, where is it?" insisted the thinner of the two men. Despite his slighter size and lack of a beard, he was no less brutal looking. A long pallid scar down the left side of his face accentuated this fact.
"How should I know?" asked Eve, defiant now and looking it with her wind-whipped hair, her dark eyes flashing.
"You know, all right," growled the huskier bearded one. He gave her an evil grin, revealing yellow and chipped teeth. "You read the letter, didn't ya?"
"Is this the south side of the island?" Jerrod asked, purposely trying to redirect their attention to him.
"You think we're fools?" This question came from the thinner of the two men. "This is the south side, right enough. Now where is that bloody cave?"
Eve glanced at Jerrod, her look an uncertain one.
"We're too far from shore to see it," he said quickly.
"What do you know about any of this? You two been talking in the cabin, have ya?"
Jerrod nodded. "She told me about the letter. It's on the south side of the island, right enough, but it has to be somewhere you can't normally reach. Benson said it was inaccessible and so unusable. That means to me it can't be on the shoreline, and it can't be too close to the cliff tops. The cave has to be somewhere in between."
The thin one looked at the bearded one, and said, "Sound reasonable to you, Pete?"
Now, "Pete" turned toward Jerrod. "Why can't we see it? If it's somewhere on the cliff face there, we should be looking right at it."
"It can't be that easy to find," Jerrod countered. "If it was, then it would have been rediscovered several times over by now. The fact that nobody has must mean the opening is probably quite small, possibly recessed, and mostly hidden in the shadows. Those knights weren't stupid. They'd have tried to find the safest place possible for their treasure."
"So we have to get closer?" asked the scarred one.
Jerrod nodded. "It would seem so."
Now Pete called out instructions to the unseen third member. In moments, the anchor rose from the sea.
"Don't either of you move from this spot," admonished Pete. "If you do, we'll just push you over. Got that?"
Both Jerrod and Eve nodded.
With a grunt, Pete and the unnamed thinner man moved off, apparently to help with the boat.
"Our chance is almost here," Jerrod whispered. "This ship is going to founder if it gets much closer to the shore. There's a shingle bank along here."
"You want them to hit it?" It sounded like an accusation.
"I do," he said, still whispering. "The minute they strike something, I'm going over the side. That's when I want you to get to the back of the boat anyway you can, and as quickly as you can. You understand?"
"You can't swim with your hands tied. You'll drown!" The look she gave him now was one of genuine concern.
"I'm going to try like hell not to. But you understand me? You know what to do."
She nodded. "Yes, I'll go straight to the back by the landing platform and wait for you there."
"Good." As he said this, the ship's engines fired up and almost gingerly, the boat turned toward the shoreline. The next minutes passed slowly, agonizingly for Jerrod. He suspected they weren't much easier for Eve.
Then, it happened. There was a loud grating noise. The ship bucked beneath them, throwing them both hard against the railing.
"What the --" they heard someone shout.
"We've grounded!" exclaimed another.
"Who the hell --" came a third bellow, but even as one of them shouted this, the cabin cruiser gave a sharp list to the port side.
Jerrod waited no longer. "Go!" he said in an urgent whisper to her. "Now, while they're diverted."
Without waiting for an answer, Jerrod leaned as far over the side of the railing as possible. Then he jumped as best he could. His midriff balanced on the railing for a moment. He shifted his weight and fell forward. He took a deep breath as went.
Jerrod plunged into the chilly waters. He knew they had to be shallow here, but they were also murky. Bristol Channel had the second highest tide in the world, some 32 feet. The waters rushing in and out constantly churned the bottom silt.
His breath and his time were fast running out. Kicking with both legs, he swam underwater toward the rear of the boat. He surfaced there, gasping for air. Eve was staring down at him from the stern. Her eyes were wide, whether with fear or anxiety Jerrod couldn't tell. He gave her a quick nod.
Then, taking several gulps of air, he flipped around and kicked down, forcing himself toward the now-still screws of the cabin cruiser. Once below them, he let himself float upward, snagging his tied hands on the under edge of one of the downward thrusting blades. The air still in lungs gave him buoyancy. His body wanted to float to the surface. He used this upward pressure to his advantage, used it as a form of resistance. Jerrod dragged his roped hands back and forth underneath the edge of the blade.
Precious seconds passed as he labored. His lungs began to burn for oxygen. He was just about to quit, go up to get more air, when with a suddenness that surprised him, the ropes parted. He swam for the surface, free at last.
Jerrod broke water. He heaved for breath, grateful for air. Then, after assuring himself Eve was still waiting for him, he swam for the platform. He hauled his wet form out of the freezing water. Jerrod grasped the plastic railing of the ladder and climbed up to her.
"No time to untie you," he told her. "I want you to climb down behind me. Don't worry. I won't let you fall. Just concentrate on finding each rung of the ladder with your feet. I'll take care of the rest."
Eve looked white-faced with fear.
"Trust me," he said.
"The boat's taking on water!" Jerrod heard one of the three men exclaim from near the bow. "She's sinking!"
"Hey! Where did those two get to?" shouted another. "Did they go over the side?"
"No!" This one sounded like Pete to Jerrod. "There they are, at the back. Get 'em!"
Now Jerrod heard the pounding of feet on deck, but it was too late. They were on the landing platform. Jerrod helped Eve into the kayak still tied there. He freed the kayak and then climbed in with her.
"This is going to be a tight squeeze," he said, "but we'll manage."
He grabbed his paddle and started using it for all he was worth. The kayak slid away from the foundering cabin cruiser.
Pete now clambered down the ladder. "Oi!" he yelled, waving his arms at them. "Get back here."
Jerrod ignored him, kept on paddling. The gulf between them and the boat widened at a rapid rate. There was no hope of Pete swimming after and overtaking them at this point. Not that he would, Jerrod suspected, because he didn't seem the type.
"I'll untie you when we're far enough away where I'm sure we're safe," he told Eve.
From behind him, she said, "Just get away from them as fast you can, please! Will they be all right?"
"They should be, as long as they stick with the cruiser. I doubt it will sink any more. It's partly on the bottom now. Stupid mistake on their part letting that rowboat go, though."
"Maybe, they can call for help?" she suggested.
"Doubt if they can get reception this far out, but they might with the radio. In any case, we'll circle around the point and go into the harbor. Once there, we'll contact the local authorities."
Now Eve was silent a moment, as he paddled the kayak over the heaving green seas. Then she asked, "Do you really think the cave was up there?"
Jerrod shrugged. "If it exists, maybe so. If so, there would have to be a way down to it from the top, some secret passage, I'd guess. But it is equally likely it's is down at the base of the cliffs, the entrance submerged most of the time. Nobody would notice that, because nobody wants to risk getting close enough to those rocks to look."
"Everyone's too busy looking at birds?" Eve now sounded flippant.
He twisted his head around to glance back at her. She was smiling.
"Twitchers, you mean?" Then he grinned. He turned back to his paddling, but said over his shoulder, "You know those men were sent here, don't you? They obviously don't have the brains to figure out something like this on their own."
Now Eve sounded serious as she said, "You think they'll send someone else, is that it?"
"I'd bet on it."
"In that case, we'll have to try and find the treasure first."
Now, he again glanced back at her. "Are you serious?" he asked.
"Definitely," she said. "In for a penny, in for a pound, I always say. Now," she added, "Would you get this thing to shore? I'm freezing!"
"You are?" he countered. "I'm all wet!"
"Oh, dear," Eve said. "I suppose I'll have to avoid saying something smart about that, since you've been my hero and saved me. But don't count on it in the future." Now she laughed.
Jerrod joined in. As he headed the kayak for shore, he felt unaccountably happy, happier than he'd been in a long time. He -- no, they had a goal. He and Eve had a plan. Moreover, for the first time in as long as he could remember, Jerrod no longer wanted to be alone. Together, they might yet even find the treasure of the last Templar.